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Loretta Young dies; elegant film, TV star

August 13, 2000|By Stephanie Simon | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Loretta Young, the elegant Academy Award-winning actress who charmed film and television audiences for half a century with her beauty, wholesome image and aura of unabashed romanticism, died early Saturday of ovarian cancer, her longtime friend and agent Norman Brokaw announced. She was 87.

Young, who had been reported hospitalized since early July, died in Los Angeles at the home of her sister Georgiana Montalban, the wife of actor Ricardo Montalban.

Young's gritty determination to be a star--and her hardheaded business sense--kept her in front of the cameras for decades after most stars from Hollywood's Golden Age had faded into nostalgia.

Gliding easily from silent films to talkies to television, the ever-slim and smiling Young delighted fans with her luminous eyes, wistful face and elaborate wardrobes.

She made nearly 100 movies, churning out mainly comedies and romances until she left the wide screen for television in 1953.

She played opposite all the romantic heroes of her day: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Tyrone Power. She acted for famed directors Orson Welles ("The Stranger"), Cecil B. De Mille ("The Crusades") and Frank Capra ("Platinum Blonde"). And to sear her image into the public's consciousness, she modeled for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Cosmopolitan.

Her lead role in 1947's "The Farmer's Daughter"--as a Swedish maid who parlays her smarts into a seat in Congress--won her the Academy Award for best actress. And she became one of the first Oscar winners to pull in a television Emmy in 1955, when she was honored for her anthology series, "The Loretta Young Show."

Throughout her career, Young remained acutely aware that her movies and television shows appealed to audiences for their sentimentality and glamour, not for their intellectual content. Typical was "A Man's Castle" in 1933, which featured her gazing adoringly at Spencer Tracy as she cooked and cleaned for him.

"My [TV] shows are not 'Birth of a Nation,' " Young once said. "They're charming little half-hours."

She was born Gretchen Michaela Young, the third of five children, in Salt Lake City on Jan. 6, 1913. Her parents separated when she was an infant, and her mother moved the brood to Los Angeles, where she opened a boardinghouse.

As a teenager, Young adopted the stage name Loretta, when studio executives decided that "Gretchen" sounded too clunky for the dainty young actress. Her cash-strapped mother allowed Gretchen and her sisters to act in "the flickers" to raise extra money for the family. Little Gretchen made her debut at age 4 in "The Only Way" as a child weeping on an operating table. She also appeared as an Arab child in Rudolph Valentino's 1921 classic "The Sheik."

In every minor role, Young strove to attract attention. She would run to the front of the pack during crowd scenes to make sure her face flashed prominently before the cameras. Forever courting fame, she was candid about her ambition.

"I was always sure," she reportedly said, "that I was going to be a big star, not just an actress."

Although she was skinny and somewhat gawky, Young broke into the big time at age 14, with a featured appearance in "Naughty but Nice." The next year she signed a contract with First National Pictures and appeared in six films, including a starring role opposite Lon Chaney in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh."

Her ingenuity masked her naivete: She managed to simulate lust for one leading man by pretending she was face to face with a scrumptiously tempting ice cream sundae.

"You had fun if you did your work well. There was no such thing as kidding around or joking. It was a dead-serious business," she once said. She hired a personal publicist to spin news for the gossip columns. And she appeared on the arm of one dashing man after another as she toured nightclubs and parties in the role of Hollywood socialite.

For all her publicized exposure, however, Young wanted audiences to perceive her as a wholesome, upstanding Catholic.

Sometimes, she was hard-pressed to keep up that image.

Against her mother's wishes, Young eloped with a freewheeling, hard-drinking vaudeville actor named Grant Withers when she was only 17, flying off to Arizona to obtain a marriage license. They had appeared together in a 1930 film, "The Second Floor Mystery." Typically, she took advantage of the hullabaloo by filming a movie with Withers provocatively titled "Too Young to Marry."

The hotly publicized union crumbled swiftly, and Young filed for divorce after just one year.

Keeping an Image for the Screen

That episode exemplified the contradictions between her private life and her public image.

Young refused to utter the word "divorce" in a movie, but was herself twice divorced. She set up a puritanical system to fine fellow actors who cursed on the set, but she carried on blazing love affairs with her leading men behind the scenes.

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